When the late British scientist James Lovelock postulated his theory on the self-regulation of the earth system and the symbiosis between living things and their inorganic surroundings, his neighbour, Lord of the Flies novelist William Golding, suggested he name it after the primordial earth goddess, Gaia.

The reference to Greek mythology appealed to the centuries-old association between the classics and scientific reasoning, while neatly side-stepping the term Mother Earth, which would have seen Lovelock labelled a hippy and a crank. But once upon a time, seeing the planet and its biosphere as a goddess was an almost ubiquitous human belief. She was, and in places still is, known by a whole alphabet of names, from Akka of the Finns to Žemyna of the Baltics. There is Houtu, the “Deep Earth Lady” of Chinese mythology, Ceres and Terra, the diva deities in ancient Rome, and Prithvi, who is worshipped worldwide by Hindus and some Buddhists. Native Americans, whose approach to natural philosophy resonates with Lovelock’s ideas, know her by many names, such as Kokyangwuti, the Spider Grandmother of the Hopi people.

As International Women’s Day comes around again, the discussion of what constitutes sex and gender in humans has never been so hotly contested. But by naming his theory after Gaia, Lovelock showed how the earth’s capacity to nurture life is still largely seen as an implicitly feminine quality. In this sense, two of the themes of this issue of Perspective, the perennial threat to women’s rights, and our ongoing desecration of the natural world, go hand in hand.

With the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis, and the political wrangling over Brexit’s continuing impact on Northern Ireland’s politics and economy, the environment rarely makes headline news these days. When it does, it’s usually climate impacts that take centre stage, especially record-breaking temperatures, floods and fires, and the debate about how much time we might have left to reach net zero and avert catastrophe, or whether we should even try to do so.

The perennial threat to women’s rights, and our ongoing desecration of the natural world, go hand in hand

It’s not just carbon emissions but our whole treatment of the natural world that needs urgent reconsideration. A collaborative mapping project between various European news agencies reported last month on the high levels of pollutants that do not break down in the environment – known as “forever chemicals” – which are present at sites across the UK and Europe. Apart from their effect on ecosystems, this group of around 10,000 chemicals (mostly from non-stick and detergent products) is linked to a host of human diseases, including several types of cancer, strokes and heart attacks.

Meanwhile, our callous disregard for the planet’s other inhabitants is mind-boggling. Let’s put aside for a moment the 80 billion animals we slaughter each year for food (much of it wasted) and look just at our wanton destruction of wildlife populations. In this issue, Ben McPherson (Death dances with wolves) writes of the desperate plight of Scandinavia’s wolf population, with Sweden, Finland and Norway all conducting extensive “culls” this winter, despite conservation groups across the world condemning the killing as barbaric and illegal. Norway alone intends to shoot 60 per cent of its wolf population, leaving just three breeding pairs in the entire country.

At the heart of this conflict lies an unwillingness by politicians to upset powerful vested interests – in this case, the hunting lobby. This is despite strong public support both in Scandinavia and around the globe for wildlife protection.

Women’s rights and our treatment of the environment are linked by more than metaphor. There’s increasing evidence that more equal participation in governance by women leads to better outcomes. A UN research project in India, for example, showed that the number of drinking-water projects in areas with women-led local councils was over 60 per cent higher than those with men-led administrations. But globally, women remain underrepresented in decision-making of all kinds, particularly at the national level. Just 26 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide are women and at the current rate of advancement parity won’t be reached until 2063, long after the globally agreed deadline of 2050 for net zero. For sure, having a female leader, or even a women-dominated ministerial cabinet, is no guarantee that sound environmental decisions will be made, as Finland’s participation in the wolf cull shows. But in a broader sense, if more rapid progress can be made towards gender parity in decision-making, perhaps we might be a step closer to turning the tide on the current ecocide, which for now continues unabated. One thing is certain: if we don’t clean up our act soon, we are all – whatever our sex or gender – going to get more than a serious ticking off from our self-regulating “mother”, whether we see her as a goddess or not

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

Columns, March 2023, Soapbox

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.